Congress Approves Yet Another Short-Term Highway Funding Bill

With just a day to spare, Congress approved a stopgap measure to fund the federal highway program, sending President Barack Obama the legislation to avert a Friday shutdown of transportation projects nationwide.

By Lisa Mascaro

With just a day to spare, Congress approved a stopgap measure to fund the federal highway program, sending President Barack Obama the legislation to avert a Friday shutdown of transportation projects nationwide.

The $8 billion bill will keep federal projects on track for the next three months, but the temporary nature of the fix creates a new crisis point in fall, as Congress has been unable to agree on a long-term solution.

Obama was expected to quickly sign the measure into law after it cleared the Senate 91-4 on Thursday. The House approved the legislation on a bipartisan vote a day earlier before leaving town for the August recess.

The bill also props up the Department of Veterans Affairs with an additional $3 billion to avoid closing health clinics amid its own budget shortfall.

But the transportation compromise excluded a provision to resurrect the Export-Import Bank, the 81-year-old government-backed financial institution that has been unable to make new loans as some conservatives in Congress want to shut it down.

Reaching a deal on transportation funding has proven difficult. The federal 18-cent-a-gallon gas tax has not been increased since 1993 and is failing to keep pace with construction costs, especially as vehicles have become more fuel-efficient and drivers are buying less gas.

The House and Senate, both controlled by Republicans, found bipartisan support from Democrats in efforts to fund highways but have taken different approaches to the problem.

House Republicans led by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are trying to devise a new funding stream for the transportation fund by tapping new revenue from a tax overhaul on corporate profits earned overseas.

However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., rejects that proposal as too politically ambitious in the short time frame available to strike a deal.

Instead, the Senate approved a six-year highway bill Thursday that is funded for half that time by piecing together small revenue streams from budget trims and fees elsewhere to keep transportation programs funded.

Even though the Senate bill was overwhelmingly approved 65-34, it has been dismissed by the House. It will serve as a starting point for the next round of talks in fall.

Congress now has until Oct. 29 to figure out a solution, at a time when lawmakers will also be dealing with other fiscal deadlines that are expected to complicate the effort.

The future of the Export-Import Bank will continue to be part of the debate, as groups funded by the billionaire Koch brothers try to wind down the bank as a symbol of corporate welfare. The bank is backed by business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as a vital resource for firms to stay competitive abroad. The bank provides financing for foreign firms buying U.S. goods _ primarily airplanes from Boeing, but also other products from smaller firms.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is running for president, has made closing the bank a top issue, and in a fiery dust-up earlier in the week, Cruz claimed McConnell had lied to senators by allowing a vote to reauthorize the bank.

While the bank provision had been attached to the Senate's transportation bill, it was not included in the stopgap compromise measure now headed to the White House.

(c)2015 Tribune Co.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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